The NYT has beaten me to the punch, their review of Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread – A Million Deaths Is Not Just a Statistic – was published Sunday.
From what I have read so far, the review is an apt description. Here is the conclusion:
Two years ago Amis published a memoir called ”Experience,” which was chiefly about his father’s descent into old age and death (and about some other hardships as well). It was a gossipy and meandering book, slightly curdled in some passages by a hint of self-promotion — and yet a clever book, chipper on the surface, grief-stricken down below. ”Koba the Dread,” in its idiosyncratic fashion, takes that same grief and pushes it a little farther. In his new book Amis has come to grips rather more steadily with the topic that has shaken him so badly in the last few years, though he has done it in a strangely elliptical manner by gazing at Soviet history instead of at the losses in his own family. For death is death, and in Stalin’s persecutions Amis has been able to contemplate death by the million. And from behind his pile of books on Soviet themes he allows himself, as any grieving person might do, to vent and rave.
The short passages in ”Koba the Dread” that slide from one Soviet topic to another, the mix of Russian details and family revelations, the breezy air that seems to come at us from behind gritted teeth, the anger directed at faraway tyrants, the slightly weird pairing of British understatement with a bellowing rage from out of Solzhenitsyn — these several traits and oddities do end up establishing a rhythm, and the rhythm is easily identified. It is the rhythm of grief as experienced by a man who would rather experience anything else — the rhythm of a man who would rather pick a fight with a beloved friend or take up a scholarly interest in Soviet history, but who keeps finding that no matter where he puts his attention, every new thing leads back to the old thing, and there is no escaping. ”Koba the Dread” is not a great book about Stalin, and it is less than a useful meditation on totalitarianism and the Western intellectuals. Amis observes that large tragedies require a ”high style” — a tone of grandeur. He himself does not command a high style. Yet his book carries a punch, artfully delivered — a punch that comes from looking at death and finding in it nothing but pain, cruelty, sadness, pointlessness and loss, a punch that comes from gazing at the indescribably horrific prison camps of the Soviet Union, or that comes from watching one’s father and sister die.
I think the reviewer gets it right here but I will give you my take soon.
BTW, If you are not familiar with Amis, the NYT have collected their reviews on his previous works here.